Today’s guest blogger is Seth Bernstein, translator and editor of Alexander Vatlin’s Agents of Terror. The book is to be released in paperback this week.
Alexander Vatlin’s book Agents of Terror is one of the finest exemplars of Russia’s archival revolution. At the end of the Soviet Union and especially in its aftermath, Russian archives declassified millions of files and provided public access to the records. These documents remain the basis for thousands of scholarly and popular works that have appeared since the late 1980s. Vatlin, a Moscow State University professor, based his work on an especially coveted source—investigation files from Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937-38. Focusing on the lower ranks of Stalin’s secret police (the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, NKVD) and their victims in one district, it reveals the motivations and logistics of mass terror through a gripping micro-history.
[Above] A home in Kuntsevo District in the 1930s. The area faced repression from NKVD officers profiled in Agents of Terror.
Since the mid-1990s, declassification has slowed or reversed in some cases. Reclassification of documents primarily affected access to the archives of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Recently researchers have revealed disturbing news that the FSB has destroyed records from the GULAG administration.
There have been less publicized archival closings as well. In 2006, a Russian law forbid archives and other institutions from releasing files containing personal information for 75 years. The nominal aims of the law are laudable. In practice, however, archival administrators have limited access to files that reflect poorly on the Soviet state because of fear or their own convictions. Among these collections are the case files that Vatlin used in Agents of Terror, a collection of the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF). Two years after the original Russian text appeared in 2004, the research behind the book became impossible to replicate.
There is recent news that should encourage those who wish to see post-Soviet archives become more open, especially those who would like to see more research like Vatlin’s Agents of Terror. With the passing of 75 years on the dates of most of the archival files, a group of graduate students at Moscow State University (MGU) and the human rights organization Memorial agreed with GARF to digitize the entire collection of case files. Vatlin used roughly 500 case files from the terror from one district as a microhistory of Stalinist repression. In contrast, the MGU students are leading a team that will digitize approximately 100,000 files. The digitized collection will be published at the site Open List, a collaborative database of victims of Stalinist repression.
The project has great potential as a scholarly database, of course. For scholars working on the history of state repression, the history of Stalinism or using quantitative methods to explore other aspects of history and society, the collection promises to be a major source of data. More importantly, though, the database helps to fill a moral void that Vatlin exposed in Agents of Terror. In the conclusion, he states that his work is just a “fragment of an immense tragedy”:
“In the fairy tale of the snow queen, a kingdom fell into an age of
darkness when a cursed mirror broke into myriad pieces, sowing
frosty indifference among its people. As in this fable, the living
fragments cast asunder in Soviet power’s war against its people
will weigh upon us until they are retrieved and placed into the light
of day—to the very last person.” (144)
Open List is one example of a group working to put these pieces back into place. Even as archival access has become more difficult in some instances, researchers, NGOs and state employees continue their work to bring new evidence to light about the Soviet past.
Seth Bernstein is assistant professor of history at Higher School of Economics in Moscow. He is the translator of Agents of Terror: Ordinary Men and Extraordinary Violence in Stalin’s Secret Police (University of Wisconsin Press, 2016) and Liudmila Novikova’s An Anti-Bolshevik Alternative: The White Movement and the Civil War in the Russian North (University of Wisconsin Press, 2018), and the author of Raised under Stalin: Young Communists and the Defense of Socialism (Cornell University Press, 2017).